08 Feb 08
The opening day of the Swedish Rally has been high on drama and excitement. Jari-Matti Latvala, Ford’s number two, produced a stellar performance to win all six of the traditional forest speed tests in his Ford Focus and build an overnight lead of 48.2sec. His team-mate Mikko Hirvonen is second, followed by the Fords of Henning Solberg and Gigi Galli.
The day also featured the unexpected retirement of Sebastien Loeb. The world champion hit a rock and rolled his C4 WRC after getting caught out by a rogue pile of snow on SS4. Mechanical damage meant that Loeb was forced to retire for the day, having held third place before the accident, but he will return as a Superally entrant on Saturday.
So far this year, the only pure winter rally in the series has failed to live up to its snowy reputation. Temperatures several degrees above freezing ensured there is barely a flake in the rally base at Karlstad. Further north in western Värmland, where today's action was based, the roads were initially snow-covered but were lacking the usual ice base beneath. Once the cars swept away the snow on this morning's first run, studded tyres ripped into the soft gravel to leave mud and standing water as the major hazards this afternoon.
On his second rally for the Ford squad, 22-year-old Latvala made the most of a perfect start position this morning which gave him the best of the road conditions. Starting 10th in the running order, the soft snow was swept clear by the early starters to leave him with better grip. "It's an amazing feeling," he said. "I had a good road position and knew I would benefit but I've also felt really confident with the Focus. I enjoyed some good times last year but this is right up there as being one of the best days in my rallying career.
"I had a few tricky moments this morning when I was too sideways and my heart was beating hard, but this afternoon I had to keep the car in the ruts like a train on a track. Conditions weren't easy for me this morning so they must have been much more difficult for the first starters," he added.
Hirvonen suffered this morning from being second in the start order, but the 27-year-old Finn moved into second and remained there throughout the day. He is 8.1s ahead of the Stobart Ford of Henning Solberg. "Jari-Matti has driven superbly and I'm not surprised he is leading, but I am surprised at the gap between us," said Hirvonen. "Of course, I would like to win but I'm not going to take any risks or make stupid mistakes in chasing him. I've not enjoyed a clear driving line all day. This morning I had the snow, and this afternoon I was first in the start order over roads on which the driving line was changed by cars further down the order on the first pass. Conditions were tricky with slush, water and gravel this afternoon. I even had mud on my windscreen and that's strange on a winter rally!
"Pirelli's tyres worked well and despite the conditions, stud retention wasn't a problem. I just tried to keep the car in the ruts and drive steadily. I'm glad the day is behind me and looking forward to tomorrow when conditions should be more even for all the front-runners," he added.
Henning Solberg and Gigi Galli will start Saturday competition third and fourth after trouble free days. Subaru’s Petter Solberg also had no problems to hold fifth, while fellow Norwegian Mads Østberg is sixth in his Impreza. Chris Atkinson dropped 15 minutes after sliding off into a snow bank on stage three while Per-Gunnar Andersson retired on stage four with the same head-gasket related problem that caused Toni Gardemeister’s retirement from Rallye Monte Carlo. Citroen’s Dani Sordo lies 18th after incurring a five-minute penalty for fitting a new engine after Rallye Monte Carlo.
Saturday’s second day is located to the north east of Karlstad with the action clustered around the town of Hagfors, which will host a remote service zone midway through the day's competition. Drivers depart Karlstad at 06.50 and face two identical loops of three stages before returning to the city for the overnight halt at 18.50.